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Cultivating alternative agriculture.

Cultivating alternative agriculture

If you eat grapes, chances are you've eaten some grown by the Pavich family of Delano, Calif. The Paviches produce 1 percent of U.S. table grapes, some 12,000 tons a year. But consumers who eat Pavich grapes get little else on their fruit, because the family eschews chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers in working its 18,000 acres of vineyards.

Instead, the Anagrus wasp, a natural parasite, controls leafhoppers, a major grape pest. Sulfur dust controls fungal diseases. Workers pull weeds not controlled by a permanent cover of perennial ryegrass and native grasses, periodically chopped. Composted steer manure, not chemical fertilizers, nourishes the soil.

The Pavich Family Farms and 10 other U.S. farms won praise in a Sept. 7 National Research Council report for their use of alternative farming methods. The report, "Alternative Agriculture," endorses a shift in U.S. agricultural policy from a price support system that emphasizes volume production and rewards liberal use of chemicals to one that encourages soil-conserving methods and reduces chemical use.

"One of our committee members called this the third major revolution in agriculture in a centry," says John Pesek of Iowa State University in Ames, who chaired the report committee. Mechanization and hybridization marked the first such revolution, he says, and chemical agriculture the second.

To fuel the new revolution, the report recommends boosting federal funding for alternative-agriculture research from $4.5 million to a least $40 million per year.

Lester R. Brown, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute, predicts the report will influence congressional debate over the new farm bill. "This is important not only for what it means for U.S. agriculture, but what we have learned and what we do learn will be beneficial to the entire world, especially developing countries," Brown says.

As defined in the report, alternative agricultural -- also described as biological, low-input, organic and sustainable -- embraces a variety of systems, including crop rotation, biological pest control, disease prevention in livestock rather than routine use of antibiotics, and genetic improvements to enable crops to resist pests, disease and drought. While agricultural researchers have focused on individual facets of diseases, pests and crops, they haven't done enought to help farmers put the findings to work, according to the report. One exception, the committee notes, is integrated pest management, in which farmers can reduce the need for pesticides through crop rotation, timing of planting and biological pest controls.

Alternative methods require careful attention. For instance, rotating legumes with grain crops can increase soil nitrogen, but the enrichment varies depending on soil chemistry, tillage and legume variety. Manure can contribute nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other nutrients to soil, but storing and spreading methods influence nutrient availability.

Robert M. Goodman, executive vice president of research and development at Calgene, Inc., a biotechnology firm in Davis, Calif., says that if the report prompts policy changes, these might create more markets for such products as seeds engineered to resist pests. But he cautions that the report, financed by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Department of Agriculture, among others, won't lead to a "nationwide abstention from agricultural chemicals." Improved management and technology must accompany chemical reductions, he says.

Ron Phillips at the Fertilizer Institute, a trade group in Washington, D.C., criticizes the report's focus on successful case histories and cautions that what works for 11 farms may not work or be wanted by all farmers. The institute endorses farm program changes that give farmers more flexibility to adopt better management practices, he says.
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Title Annotation:farming without pesticides
Publication:Science News
Date:Sep 23, 1989
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